Vehicles continue acquiring functions that operate more like remote controls for our daily lives. Those functions are still spread around the car, though, from driver profiles embedded in key fobs to garage door openers on a sun visor to smart device control via Alexa in a vehicle's infotainment system. Mirror display maker Gentex wants to centralize a cluster of capabilities in the rearview mirror, made possible by a display with a biometric reader.
If you’ve driven a car in the past few decades, you’ve interacted with Gentex. Among other products, they invented the auto-dimming rearview and side mirrors, and ship about 40 million of those devices per year. “Since then,” says Craig Piersma, Gentex's marketing chief, “we’ve put about 100 different features into the mirror, just because it’s the ideal location.” Those range from simple digital insets with the temperature or compass direction, to the company’s Homelink system that provides three buttons for opening garage doors.
In 2007, a number of automakers began installing Gentex’s Rear Camera Display mirror. When the driver shifted into reverse, a small screen on the left side of the mirror displayed the image from the rear camera. In 2016, the Cadillac CT6 was the first car to use Gentex’s Full Display Mirror, which tuned the entire mirror face into a display upon request. It would go onto appear in other GM vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Traverse (pictured below) and most notably, the new Corvette.
Last year in Japan, the Toyota Harrier debuted another Gentex OEM first: a rearview mirror with a DVR system that can record up to two hours of video depending on the size of the memory card. A user can press a button to capture an image; in an accident, the DVR automatically saves footage from 20 seconds before and after the incident.
Teslas come with built-in dashcams that capture footage from all angles, viewable on the central infotainment screen. Cadillac introduced its Surround Vision Recorder on the 2018 CT6, but it can only record one angle, only captures five minutes of footage before overwriting, and must be viewed outside the vehicle.
The Harrier has come to the United States as the resurrected Toyota Venza minus the DVR option, a situation that could change soon and come with more features. Piersma said, “The one sold today on the Harrier in Japan, there's no playback. You have to pop the micro-SD card out, put it in a computer, and then you can watch everything. But the next version you'll be able to play that back in the display mirror itself … and we're looking at creating some additional functionality to it to make it even more popular moving forward.”
The biometric mirror Gentex has spent a couple of years developing could start with the above features and centralize others we’re already used to using elsewhere in the vehicle. A driver would set up a profile by looking at an infrared emitter in the housing, then the mirror would “store your iris as an encrypted digital template,” Piersma said. “Now, each time you get in that car subsequently, [the car is] going to recognize you.” The mirror will tell the car how to set up the vehicle, everything from seat and steering wheel position to satellite radio presets.
For a family with teenaged drivers, the biometric mirror could activate the restricted driving settings. “Maybe the car adjusts itself so that it limits the speed, or it has a geofenced area,” Piersma said.
At the moment, these kinds of functions are usually stored in key fobs, although GM’s Teen Driver Technology is controlled through the infotainment system, and Hyundai’s BlueLink through a cellphone. Most cars come with two fobs, so having such capability in a mirror allows for more driver profiles. Using an iris reader also makes the process automatic and more difficult to bypass. Potential lockdown measures could include only being able to start the vehicle with an approved iris profile.
Gentex created the rearview mirror with an integrated toll payment module for any toll road in North America. That was introduced in the U.S. market in Audi vehicles in 2018. Payment accounts could be tied to a biometric profile, so the mirror “is going to know who's behind the wheel and uses their tolling module.” Gentex says person-specific profiling opens up possibilities for additional cloud services such as online banking, social media account access, even health information.
Anyone with security concerns should know that many vehicles contain this functionality already. Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant connect to the Internet of Things right now, and Microsoft’s Connected Car is in development with Nissan and BMW. Outside of big tech, ATT wants car-based control for its Digital Life home security and automation products, and Samsung said at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show that it wants “most new cars” in the United States to be compatible with its SmartThings app.
Gentex merely wishes to put the possibilities in one place, but the company has invested in keeping its software safe.
“All of our products have some degree of software in them. Even our auto-dimming mirrors have algorithms to adjust the dimming curves, so we have a team of software engineers and a lot of that development is done in-house,” Piersma said. “We're an automotive electronics company at heart.”
And because Gentex’s Homelink system can already communicate with home automation systems (right down to individual devices like a thermostat and lights), the biometric mirror could be programmed to keep tabs on the house or prepare one’s home for arrival. The only question is what you’d rather issue your commands to: your phone, your infotainment-enabled assistant, or — like the queen in Snow White — to your image in the rearview mirror?
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